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Everyone’s a Philosopher

The Socrates Café where all you need to know, is that you don’t know a thing.


Jennifer Clayton, book-buyer-cum-philosophical-facilitator at Shockoe Bottom’s Café Gutenberg, began her own “philosophical shindig” this past April.

Clayton and Miller were inspired by author Christopher Phillips, who originated the “Socrates Café” idea in his book by the same name. Phillips abandoned his life of photography, journalism and teaching in 1996 to embark on a self-funded philosophical circuit. His goal was to give philosophy back to the people, by facilitating discussions and using the Socratic method around the country in jails, shelters, nursing homes and other public locales.

Phillips’ venture has proved a rapidly growing success — there are currently about 150 Socrates Cafes in more than 100 different locations worldwide. The lengthy instructions on Phillips’ Web site can be boiled down to two core ideas: 1) all you need to know is you don’t know a thing and 2) the group should never reach a unified consensus.

“Each question should lead to more questions in order to broaden horizons of thinking, rather than settling upon a compromise of easy conclusions,” Clayton says. “People have a limited idea of what philosophy is. It’s any type of questioning. Anyone who questions life is a philosopher.”

And no, you don’t have to wear black, sip espresso or have a philosophy degree to participate. Medical students, teachers, engineers, retired people, writers, poets and even the occasional priest have been known to attend Richmond’s newest philosophical forum at Café Gutenberg. While there was a lack of ethnic diversity in the 30 or so folks who attended the first Tuesday in June, there was a liberal mix of age and gender, and most people present had something to contribute. The seasoned philosophers in the group warn the neophytes that whatever they lay upon the table will not be attacked, but thoroughly questioned.

While Gutenberg’s philosophers fill a large room, Crossroads participants crowd into a more intimate setting with a norm of five or six, topping off at 13. The night opens with the question “Does anyone have a question?” and it takes off from there.

Miller, who has frequented the Socrates Cafés in both Richmond locations, says there has been an overlap of topics, even when all of the participants have been different. She observes that “you can see the basic human questions emerge, even when you begin talking about disparate issues. … We’re not there as our occupation or our age or anything else. We’re just there as people with thoughts and reactions.”

Thy Tran, part-owner of Café Gutenberg, allows that certain personalities tend to dominate the discussion, and she assures the timider participants that those few will be reigned in by Clayton, who acts as facilitator. Tran notes that the conversation manages to feel “like stream of consciousness” even with new voices constantly blending into the mix. Although she’s the one to say “Let’s get started” at the Crossroads discussion, Miller says there is no formal facilitator and “everyone asks each other more clarifying questions.”

Gwendolyn Nixon, local high-school teacher and poet who has been at every Gutenberg Café since its conception, says how much she needed “a spot in Richmond to just sit down and talk and listen.” She adds that this sort of open discussion “culminates in hard-level critical thinking skills,” and that she’s planning to use similar techniques with her students.

Mike Howell, a doctoral candidate at Virginia Commonwealth University’s school of social work and a regular at Crossroads, says that the discussion forces him to think about how other people think about things. “It expands my perspective,” he says. “We integrate ideas about philosophy into more applicable situations. People are always having an experience that leads them to ask bigger questions.”

While you might leave a Socrates Café with fewer answers than you had when you entered, the quality of your questions may have improved. S

Café Gutenberg’s Socrates Café takes place the first Tuesday of each month at 7 p.m. at Main and 17th streets. Crossroads Coffee & Ice Cream, at the Forest Hill and Semmes avenues, holds its Socrates Café the first Thursday of every month at 7 p.m.

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